THE 1999 TRIUMPH THUNDERBIRD SPORT
By Chuck Hawks
"Yes!" I thought when I first read about the addition of the Sport model to the classic Thunderbird line, "This is the Triumph I have been waiting for." You can believe that when the good folks at Cycle Parts Triumph in Eugene, Oregon graciously offered me a chance to test ride a new Thunderbird Sport, I accepted with alacrity.
This is a hard motorcycle to classify. Some call it a cruiser, or sport cruiser, because of its classic appearance (although anyone who has ever ridden a T'bird Sport can tell you it definitely does not feel like a cruiser). Others consider it a naked sport bike, because of its excellent suspension, powerful multi-cylinder motor, and aggressive riding position. I call it a sport standard, because I regard it as the modern equivalent of a Triumph Bonneville or BSA Lightning, which were sportier versions of standard Triumph and BSA motorcycles of the past. The T'bird Sport is a sportier version of today's standard Thunderbird. But whatever you call it, it is a good looking, high performance motorcycle that people notice.
From a distance, the 1999 Triumph Thunderbird Sport looks much like a classic Triumph from the late 1960's. To my taste, this is very good styling indeed. Upon closer inspection, you find that it is definitely a contemporary motorcycle, also a good thing, since it is going to be sold to 21st Century customers.
Unfortunately, some of the classic styling licks don't hold up under close inspection. What looked like an old-fashioned, round, Amal air cleaner from a distance is really some ventilated chrome trim pasted onto a large plastic air box. The gas tank, which from the side looks much like a tank from classic 650 Triumph, appears much larger and more bulbous from the rider's position. (It is, since it holds about a third more fuel.) The front fender lacks the external braces of the classic British type, and has an odd "bubble" running down the middle for its entire length. It is not really a bad fender, but Triumph should take a close look at the elegant front fender on a Harley Sportster for inspiration. The rear fender seems to have an awful lot of clearance over the back tire, and the taillight looks like an afterthought. It is also a little hard to ignore the radiator on such a classically styled bike. These are fairly minor complaints, and they would not stop me from purchasing a T'bird Sport if I were so inclined.
On the other hand, the overall proportions of the bike are very attractive. The fit and finish are very good, particularly the paint job. The blacked out engine looks great, the seat is attractively shaped, and the forks, halogen headlight, instruments and handlebars look right. For Y2K models, the upswept three-into-two exhaust system of 1999 (which I thought looked fine) has been replaced by an even better looking three-into-two system that terminates in reverse cone megaphones placed a little lower. Taken as a whole, it is a good looking, businesslike motorcycle.
The seat is relatively flat, and reasonably comfortable, with a slightly raised passenger area. The footpegs are rear set, so your feet are about under your butt. The reach to the short, flat handlebars puts an average sized rider into a forward leaning position. This results in a fair amount of pressure on the rider's wrists, at least until you are going fast enough for the pressure of the wind against your chest to neutralize some of the weight on your wrists. It is a good position for fast riding on a naked bike, not so good at slower speeds or behind a windshield. The hand controls are conventional and easily mastered (although the turn signals must be manually cancelled), and the easy to read tach and speedo are above the triple clamp where they belong. The riding position is more aggressive than that of a Sportster Sport or a Buell Cyclone, American bikes to which the British Thunderbird Sport might reasonably be compared. In summation, the Sport feels like a sport bike to the rider.
It also stops and handles like a sport bike. It is certainly not retro in these areas. Twin 320mm front discs and a single 285mm rear disc, all with hydraulically actuated 2 piston calipers, take care of the former. Fully adjustable Showa cartridge type forks in the front and a 3-way adjustable mono shock in the back handle the suspension chores. Rotating mass is minimized by lightweight and good-looking 17" laced wheels with alloy rims. The sticky radial sport tires require tubes. I don't know what the maximum lean angle is, but it seems to be more than adequate. At least I never grounded anything. The steering is quick, and the bike flicks from side to side quite easily, more so than its 535-pound wet weight might suggest. It is a fine ride on winding roads.
Thrust is provided by a souped-up version of the standard Thunderbird's 885cc motor. This is a liquid cooled DOHC inline triple, fed by three 36mm carburetors, with an electronic ignition system. Triumph says this engine makes 83 HP and 56 lb.-ft. of torque at the crankshaft. This translates to about 72 HP and 52.4 lb.-ft. at the rear wheel.
The transmission is a slick shifting six-speed unit, and the final drive is by chain. Chain final drive is cheap for the manufacturer to produce, lightweight, and allows the owner to change final drive ratios by simply changing the countershaft or rear wheel sprockets. Unfortunately, it is messy, requires regular maintenance, and is more trouble prone than modern belt or shaft drive systems. It also requires regular replacement of both the chain and sprockets, which makes it more expensive to maintain. I feel that chain drive is better suited to race bikes than street bikes. A more complete set of specifications for the Thunderbird Sport can be found in my "Standard & Sport Cruiser Motorcycle Comparison Chart."
Power delivery is smooth, with most of the punch in the upper half of the RPM range. Magazine road tests credit the bike with a quarter mile time in the low 12-second range. Frankly, it does not feel that fast when ridden normally. The throttle response is good, but roll on power is only fair unless you keep the revs up. If you want to pass a slower moving vehicle on the highway when cruising in 6th gear, you will normally have to shift down a couple of cogs.
Triumph offers some accessories for the Sport, among which is an ugly fly screen, which I strongly advise against. Their sport windshield is both better looking and more effective, if you are seeking wind protection. The company also offers a good line of quality riding clothes and accessories.
It is hard not to compare the Thunderbird Sport to the Sportster Sport. This comparison dates back to the days when the Harley-Davidson Sportster and the Triumph Bonneville were the hottest bikes on the street. The guys who rode Sportsters were well aware that a sharp Bonneville might be able to take them, and vice versa. It is a particularly natural comparison for me, because in the 1960's I was a Triumph guy, and now I am a Harley guy. I am intimately familiar with this old rivalry from both sides.
Today neither the Thunderbird Sport nor its modern counterpart the Sportster Sport is the hottest bike around, but both have a street fighter image, and neither is to be taken lightly. Compared to a Sportster Sport, the T'bird Sport's roll on acceleration is sluggish, and the Sportster would likely wax it in an impromptu stoplight Gran Prix. This is because the Sportster's bigger motor develops much more torque than the Triumph's (68 lb. -ft. compared to 52.4 lb.-ft.), and does so across a broader range. On the other hand, the T'bird Sport is over a full second faster in a quarter mile. This is due to the T'bird's big edge in horsepower (72 compared to 56).
As you can see, the power characteristics of the two motors are nearly the opposite of each other. It makes the two bikes feel very different to ride. The Triumph's three-cylinder engine is much smoother than Harley's V-twin, and because it vibrates less it is superior for sustained high-speed cruising. On the other hand, the Sportster has a standard riding position, more comfortable for long hours in the saddle than the T'bird's sport bike crouch. The Sportster has a lower center of gravity and wider handlebars, both of which contribute to its superior low speed maneuverability. It is a lot more confidence inspiring in a gravel parking lot, for instance. The low center of gravity and tractable engine also make the Sportster an easier bike to ride in the city, or with a passenger. The T'bird steers quicker, but the Sportster is more stable and predictable. I would rather tour on the Sportster, and race on the T'bird Sport.
Both have excellent brakes and very similar suspensions, and weigh about the same. In an impromptu race down a winding country lane, the Triumph might have a slight advantage, although its (presumed) ability to carry a little more speed into the corners would be largely negated by the Sportster's acceleration out of the corners. I think that the performance of the two bikes is so close that the slightly better rider would win, regardless of which bike he or she was riding. On a racetrack, given riders of equal ability, the Triumph's rider could make good use of its greater horsepower, and would probably prevail.
In summation, neither bike is really superior to the other. They represent different answers to the sport standard question. The good news is that, once again, there is a strong, profitable, Triumph Motorcycle Company, willing and able to challenge the best in the world.
Copyright 1999, 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.